Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884

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Much of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s writing is characterized by a Whitmanesque expansiveness and a generosity of spirit as notable for its elemental energy as for its moral fearlessness. Bjørnson was concerned with the issues underlying the fundamental connection between love and power. In The Fisher Maiden, he provides fascinating insights into some of the key elements involved in the genesis of the Scandinavian feminist movement. This movement flourished because of the social criticism and remarkable insights of such contemporaries as Camilla Collett, Alexander Kielland, Jonas Lie, Henrik Ibsen, and Bjørnson himself.

The Fisher Maiden is more than a novella and something less than a complete novel. It describes in both idyllic and Darwinistic terms the experiences of a young heroine, Petra, who is compelled to move from the country to the city, where her ambitions are realized in the theater. Petra is a woman of considerable genius, and she becomes entangled in a series of capricious affairs involving a succession of lovers who are utterly enchanted by her reveries. However, Petra is not truly in love with any of her suitors, and any relationship beyond the fanciful and the theatrical can serve only as a prop for her romantic genius and her artistic nature. Thus Bjørnson presents an elemental crisis that pits career against nuptial fulfillment. In Petra’s case, the nuptial element is subordinated to the dramatic and creative. The result is a nineteenth century portrait that questions a woman’s place at the hearth and the role of marriage as the mainstay of her fulfillment or salvation.

Bjørnson recognized an unbroken connection of his time to the beliefs, courage, and values of the Viking past, which all Norwegians cherished. At the same time, he was concerned with the problems of human estrangement and reconciliation, particularly in the relationship of the sexes. Throughout his literary career, Bjørnson advocated women’s emancipation with oratorical fervor, and much of his work serves as a profound commentary on the degradation of women living in a society dominated by men. In The Fisher Maiden, he makes it clear that happiness and productivity are not necessarily attained only through marriage and that an immoral marriage involving abuse and subordination must be terminated. Bjørnson also felt that love is only one of many strands woven into the fabric of life, and he advocated that women’s equality be founded on the dissolution of the double standard.

For Petra, no amount of saintly condemnation by the village bigots who will not countenance music and dancing can destroy her spirit; nor can that condemnation force her to seek refuge in marriage. Indeed, she has very little regard for the village ideas regarding the ethic of courtship, and she is not so overwhelmed by the supposed anguish of her suitors as to be overcome with pity. She refuses to be, like her mother, compelled to live in contempt and fervent regret because of an unfortunate affair or a momentary weakness. Petra feels destined to become an actress, and she does so despite the pressures and moral indignation of a society that would have her choose otherwise.

Bjørnson felt nothing but contempt for innocence predicated on ignorance and superstition. He believed that growth could not be manifested in the miraculous and the supernatural; rather, its fundamental tenet was based on reason, law, and political and social evolution. In many ways, Bjørnson presented the moral, spiritual, religious, and political crisis of orthodox Christianity in its support of traditional sociopolitical beliefs regarding women. As an aggressive radical, he believed that life must supersede religion, most especially when the two conflicted. As the pastor says to the village saints: “Spiritual life thrives but poorly in your mountain home, and partakes of the gloom of the surrounding vegetation. Prejudice, like the cliffs themselves, overhangs your life and casts a shadow upon it.”

For Petra, as for so many of Bjørnson’s fictional characters, guilt serves as a driving force of human motivation. It underlies much of the struggle for power, it is the primary consideration in the struggle for control, and in matters of personal fulfillment it has an extraordinary potential for confusing and undermining the relationships between the sexes.

Petra ultimately gains courage and wisdom from her suffering and from the betrayals, duplicity, and chicanery of the society that has driven her from her home. That wisdom is sufficient to support her in her dedication to the theater. Bjørnson questions whether it is reasonable to impose blame for certain forms of behavior or feeling without regard for the extent of provocation.

Indeed, he suggests the possibility of mutual culpability in certain situations involving attraction and seduction, and it seems that he also insists on some element of feminine responsibility. He poses difficult moral questions in The Fisher Maiden and appears to permit no easy answers.

The Fisher Maiden is a novel of remarkable lyric power, implicit optimism, and visionary fervor. By establishing a series of polarities and contrasts in the characters of Petra, Gunlaug, Hans, and Pedro, Bjørnson entertains and educates the reader with a story that is supported by a curious blend of mysticism and rationalism. That blend serves as an extraordinary means for revealing the fundamental egalitarianism of the Norwegian character.